On Liberty – Chapter 5 Summary – Applications

In Chapter 5 of Liberty, Mill discusses his principle of liberty in the context of some applications. These applications are not consequence of the principle itself but rather used to illustrate what the principle would entail. “I offer not so much applications, as specimens of applications; which may serve to bring into greater clearness the meaning and limits of the maxims”.

  1. He first reminds us of the two principles, the first being that an “individual is not accountable to society for his actions, in so far as these concern the interests of no person but himself”. The second, that “for such actions as are prejudicial to the interests of other, the individual is accountable, and may be subjected either to social or to legal punishment, if society is of opinion that the one or the other is requisite for its protection”.
  2. Mill urges us to recognize the fact that not because one action can affect the interests of other that interference is alone justified. Particularly in the field of trade, there is much competition which involves such interests and necessarily involves the suffering of losing against others. He says however these “often are due to bad social institutions,  they are unavoidable while those institutions last; and some would be unavoidable under any institution”.
  3. Mill makes a distinction between the “Doctrine of Free Trade” and the “principle of liberty”. The doctrine of free trade, is one that has recognized that government interference in social trade, either by fixing prices or regulating the process of manufacturing doesn’t lead to the best outcomes. “It is now recognized, though not till after a long struggle, that both the cheapness and the good quality of commodities are most effectually provided for by the leaving the producers and sellers perfectly free, under the sole check of, equal freedom to the buyers for supplying themselves elsewhere
  4. Mill clearly states that this doctrine doesn’t in most case involves the principle of individual liberty, and so is not concerned by the limits of the doctrine. “What amount of public control is admissible for the prevention of fraud by adulteration; how far sanitary precautions, or arrangements to protect working people employed in dangerous occupations, should be enforced on employers, such questions involve considerations of liberty only in so far as leaving people to themselves is always better, ceteris paribus (other things equal), than controlling them: but that they may be legitimately controlled for these ends is in principle undeniable”.
  5. Mill cites the “Main Law” (one of the first statutory implementations of the developing temperance movement in the United States) as a law that is essentially a question of liberty, because the object of the interference is to make it impossible or difficult to obtain a commodity, and that the infringement is objectionable not as operating on producers or sellers, but on the buyers.
  6. Mill then goes through a few other examples of such restrictions such as the sale of poison, the prevention of crime or of accident and provides some alternate ways to reduce the side effects. He believes that “the preventive function of government is far more liable to be abused, to the prejudice of liberty, than the punitory function”. One should not however shriek from preventing a crime when there is certainty it would happen. If the function of poisons is to always be used to do harm, than it is justified to prohibit their manufacture and sale. For cases where someone puts himself in harm without knowing it (such as about walking a bridge over a river which officers know is unsafe), it is also justified to intervene without an infringement of liberty. “Liberty consists in doing what one desires, and he does not desire to fall into the river. In cases where the danger is not certain, it ought to be the person to judge for himself what that danger would interference would be justified is only warning of it”. Mill says one way to increase awareness of the danger in the example of the poison, is to provide labelling. Forcing everyone to get a certificate in order to buy this item would be much too expensive.
  7. Mill also discusses the method of contracts called “pre-appointed evidence” as named by Bentham as a good example of preventing evil without infringement worth taking into account upon the liberty of those people. “Precaution of a similar nature might be enforced in the sale of articles adopted to be instruments of crime. The seller might be required to enter in a register the exact time of the transaction, the name and address of the buyer, the precise quality and quantity sold” so as to make it quite difficult to do something bad without being detected.
  8. Mill also mentions drunkenness which he says is not a fit subject for legislative interference, except if it is known to be leading a person into a state of violence (for example in the case of recidivists). “The making himself drunk, in a person whom drunkenness excites to do harm to others, is a crime against others. So again, idleness, except in a person receiving support from the public or except when it constitutes a breach of contract, cannot without tyranny be made a subject of legal punishment”.
  9. He also mentions violation of good manners as one “within the category of offenses against others and may rightly be prohibited”. This includes offenses against decency, but Mill doesn’t define the limit or the scope of such offenses.
  10. Mill also asks: “what the agent is free to do, ought other persons to be equally free to counsel or instigate?”. He finds that “whatever it is permitted to do, it must be permitted to advise to do” But there are some limits, especially when the counselor has a pecuniary interest: “the question is doubtful only when the instigator derives a personal benefit from his advice; when he makes it his occupation, for subsistence or pecuniary gain, to promote what society and the State consider to be an evil”. Other examples, he says should be tolerated are fornication and gambling. “but should a person be free to be a pimp or to keep a gambling house? The case is one of those which lie on the exact boundary line between two principles.”
  11. There are argument on both side he says. On the side of toleration, how can we we have a double standard of making something admissible yet not when it becomes an occupation. Our principle ought to be consistent and people should be as free to persuade as to dissuade. On the other side, it should be recognized that however the state may not be allowed to authoritatively decide to punish, it may still think the activity to be a disputable question. That it should be wrong on their part to want to dissuade solicitations which are not impartial, who have a direct personal interest on the opposite side of what the state considers right. the same argument would argue that “though the statutes respecting unlawful games are utterly indefensible – though all persons should be free to gamble by their own subscription, and open only to the members and their visitors – yet public gambling houses should not be permitted”. Mill doesn’t eventually take a side, noting however that prohibition does tend to go one in secrecy and unregulated. These arguments also apply to items that can be bought: “every article which is bought and sold may be used in excess, and the sellers have a pecuniary interest in encouraging that excess” but that doesn’t justify the Main Law, in that, one cannot ban the dealers because they are an indispensable part of providing the goods for their legitimate use.
  12. Another aspect is whether the state should be allowed to restrict the agents to geographical areas or quantities of goods, making it harder to get them by limiting the purchasing points. “To tax stimulants for the sole purpose of making them more difficult to be obtained, is a measure differing only in degree from their entire prohibition, and would be justifiable only if that were justifiable. Every increase of cost is a prohibition, to those whose means do not come up to the augment price”. Should stimulants be special subjects of taxation? at first it would not seem so but it is well remembered, said Mill, that taxation for fiscal purposes is absolutely inevitable and some products more than other will be targeted. It is therefore best to tax those products which, if used in greater quantity provide greater damage. “Taxation therefore, of stimulants, up to the point which produces the largest amount of revenue (supposing that the State needs all the revenue which it yields) is not only admissible, but to be approved of
  13. Mill thinks any intervention which is done in a paternal mindset is wrong, particularly on the ground that they infringe on the opportunity to control oneself and develop one’s moral capacities. “It is only because the institutions of this country are a mass of inconsistencies, that things find admittance into our practice, which belong to the system of despotic, or what is called paternal, government, while the general freedom of our institutions precludes the exercise of the amount of control necessary to render the restrain of any real efficacy as a moral education
  14. Mill addresses the concern of those engagements between individual and in what cases the state would be allowed to interfere. Any engagement which seeks to remove the liberty by making one a slave of another are null and void. “The reason for not interfering, unless for the sake of others, with a person’s voluntary acts, is consideration of liberty. By selling himself for a slave, he abdicates his liberty and its future use”. “the principle of freedom cannot require that he should not be free
  15. Mill does think however, that people who bind each other with what only concerns themselves should also be able to release themselves from the engagement. He cites Wilhelm von Humboldt, from his essay on government, “That engagements which involve personal relations or services should never be legally binding beyond a limited duration of time; and that the most important of these engagements, marriage, having the peculiarity that its objects are frustrated unless the feelings of both the parties are in harmony with it, should require nothing more than the declared will of either party to dissolve it”. Mill however think more needs to be known about the premise that leads one to end the engagement. Because with such engagement, so much is done by either party to plan for the future and rely on this promise, to build expectations and calculations about one’s life, there are a new series of moral obligations that then arises which even though can be overruled, cannot be ignored. This would be the same if any third party, or children come out from this union. He disagree with Humboldt that these matters should make no difference in the legal freedom of the parties to release themselves from the engagement, “they necessarily make a great difference in the moral freedom. A person is bound to take all these circumstances into account before resolving on a step which may affect such important interests of others; and if he does not allow proper weight to those interests, he is morally responsible for the wrong”.
  16. Mill then talks about the misplacement of the sentiment of liberty. In many cases, liberty is withheld where it ought to be granted or granted where it ought to be withheld. He deals with one case in particular where he thinks the sentiment of liberty is misplaced. It regards the case where one is acting on the behalf of another under the pretext that their affairs are his own. “The state, while it respects the liberty of each in what specially regards himself, is bound to maintain a vigilant control over his exercise of any power which it allows him to possess over others”. One area where this is completely disregarded is over the despotic power of husbands over their wives, who should be getting the same rights and protection of the law as any man.
  17. This is also true regarding how father treat their children, who are thought to be part of them which makes the misapplication of the principle even more urgent. For children, in the case of education, Mill wonders, “is it not almost a self-evident axiom, that the State should require and compel parents to provide the education, up to a certain standard, of every human being who is born its citizen?” State ought to have the power to force parents to comply with such obligation. They ought to give any new children all the chance she deserves and which enables her to perform well in life. “While this is unanimously declared to be the father’s duty, scarcely anybody, in this country, will bear to hear, of obliging him to perform it”. it is still unrecognized that to bring up a child in this world without a fair prospect of being able to develop itself is a moral crime.
  18. Even though Mill is for universal education, he doesn’t think the state should be the sole provider because of the difficulties of agreeing on what to teach and how to teach it. “The objections which are urged with reason against state education do not apply to the enforcement of education by the state but to the state’s taking upon itself to direct that education, which is a totally different thing”. Mill re-iterates the importance of individuality of character, diversity of opinions and modes of conduct which should be encouraged by a diversity of education. That is why he doesn’t want people to be molded to look like each other, which is what a state education would do, and which eventually tend to represent the predominant power in the government. There should be many competing experiments, perhaps the state being one of them, “carried on for the purpose of example and stimulus, to keep the others up to a certain standard of excellence”.
  19. How should this education be certified? Only through public examination and beginning at an early age, says Mill. Help may be given if fathers don’t have sufficient money to give the ability to read to their children. A certain minimum amount of knowledge should be required for certification but “beyond that minimum there should be voluntary examination on all subjects, at which all who come up to a certain standard of proficiency might claim a certificate”. Mill doesn’t think you should be tested for opinions. “The knowledge required for passing an examination should, even in the higher classes of examinations, be confined to facts and positive science exclusively”. The examination on religion, politics or other disputed topics should not be about the truth or falsehood of opinions but on matters of facts, that for example, such opinion is held by such and such person.
  20. Mill believes that “all attempts by the state to bias the conclusions of its citizens on disputed subjects are evil; but it may very properly offer to ascertain and certify that a person possesses the knowledge requisite to make his conclusions, on any given subject, worth attending to”. Also, All professions should be available for certifications and government shouldn’t exclude anyone from one of any professions.
  21. It is important to emphasize that Mill is quite against  bringing to life more babies in a state of overpopulation, whose parents cannot afford to provide them a good education, and knowing that this increases the number of low wage labors and would have the effect of reducing the reward of one’s labor because of the added competition. He is in favor of some of the laws in other European countries which forbid marriage if the couple cannot demonstrate enough means of supporting a family. “Such laws are interferences of the state to prohibit a mischievous act – an act injurious to others, which ought to be a subject of reprobation, and social stigma, even when it is not deemed expedient to superadd legal punishment”.
  22. Mills finishes this chapter questioning the validity of acts performed by the states to help people rather than restrict them. He gives 3 objections to such governmental interference. 1) The thing to be done is likely to be better done by individuals than by the government. 2) It is desirable that things be done by individual instead of governmental officers, even if not done well, because they are “a mean to their own mental education – a mode of strengthening their active faculties, exercising their judgement, and giving them a familiar knowledge of the subjects with which they are thus left to deal”. 3) the great evil of adding unnecessarily to the government’s power.
  23. The 2nd reason is about the development of citizenry. It is in the interest of the country to train its people to be citizens, to give them practical education that takes them “out of the narrow circle of personal and family selfishness and accustoming them to the comprehension of joint interests – the management of joint concerns – habituating them to act from public or semi-public motives, and guide their conduct by aims which unite instead of isolating them from one another”. This further allows at local levels the development of individuality and diversity of modes of action, which allows creativity to come forth. The government’s “business is to enable each experimentalist to benefit by the experiments of others; instead of tolerating no experiments but its own
  24. Regarding the 3rd reason, Mill fears that an increase of governmental powers would lead to a decrease in the active powers of the people, and a reliance of others to do the job. If everything became the job of the government, such as roads, railways, banks, insurance, joint-stocks, universities, charities, municipal board etc.. then there would be no freedom in such a country. “The evil would be greater, the more efficiently and scientifically the administrative machinery was constructed – the more skillful the arrangements the arrangements for obtaining the best qualified hands and heads with which to work it”.
  25. Mill discuss the proposal that the most intelligent and instructed people should be hired for civil service. Those who are against this proposal, hold that the state cannot pay high enough to attract such people from the private sector. Mill however is uneasy about such a proposal, that even if that could be done, a small minority would then hold much of the bureaucracy to which the rest of the community would look for to dictate them what to do. Ambition would be to be admitted to this group. Also, it would be very hard for the people to check against their representatives. “Under this regime, not only is the outside public ill-qualified, for want of practical experience, to criticize or check the mode of operation of the bureaucracy, but even if the accidents of despotic or the natural working of popular institutions occasionally raise to the summit a ruler or rulers of reforming inclinations, no reform can be effected which is contrary to the interest of the bureaucracy”. That is the state of things in Russia where the Czar cannot govern without or against the will of the bureaucrat.
  26. Mill contrast this with countries with freedom such as France and America where people have enough skills to transact things on their own. “What the french are in military affairs, the Americans are in every kind of civil business; let them be left without a government, every body of americans is able to improvise one, and to carry on that or any other public business with a sufficient amount of intelligence, order and decision. This is what every free people ought to be: and a people capable of this is certain to be free; it will never let itself be enslaved by any man or body of men because these are able to seize and pull the reins of the central administration”.
  27. Mill believes no absolute rule can be laid down with regards to the art of government: “to secure as much of advantages of centralized power and intelligence as can be had without turning into governmental channels too great a proportion of the general activity is one of the most difficult and complicated questions in the art of government”. To him however, one principle conveyed the standard of overcoming the difficulties: “the greatest dissemination of power consistent with efficiency; but the greatest possible centralization of information, and diffusion of it from the centre”.
  28. Mill envisions in every local department, a central superintendence who would gather a variety of information and experience in all localities and would share them with other places. He gives an example of how this organization is better done and compares it with the Poor Law board, which was created for the administration of the poor Law of 1834.

Mill finishes by reiterating when the mischief with the state begins, when “instead of calling forth the activity and powers of individuals and bodies, it substitutes its own activity for theirs”. A worth of the state is in its people and if a state only favors docile individuals who cannot do anything more than administrative things, it will soon find out that “with small men no great thing can really be accomplished; and that the perfection of machinery to which it has sacrificed everything, will in the end avail it nothing, for want of the vital power which, in order that the machine might work more smoothly, it has preferred to banish


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